Vale School District Superintendent Alisha McBride gave a presentation to the Vale School Board on Jan. 6 regarding the merits of returning to full in-person instruction. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

VALE – Vale students will return to a full day of class on Tuesday, Jan. 19 – the first time for something approaching a normal school day since March.

The Vale School Board voted in a special meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 6, to open schools, taking advantage of new authority from Gov. Kate Brown.

The meeting was attended by several dozen families, and the mood was jubilant as board Chair Michael McGourty, Vice Chair Jason Chamberlain and Directors Dave Wenger, Randy Seals, and Darlene McConnell voted unanimously in favor of reopening.

The decision was applauded by the crowd in the gym of Vale Middle School.

“Students and staff will be required to wear face coverings, maintain physical distancing, stay home when ill, sanitize their hands frequently, and adhere to additional health and safety protocols,” according to a statement from Superintendent Alisha McBride.

Though the decision to return to school full-time was hardly unexpected – the school board on Dec. 18 passed a resolution in which directors took a unanimous position advocating for schools to reopen – it still marks a historic shift. 

Until Dec. 23, Covid safety guidelines prevented counties deemed at “extreme risk” for Covid transmission from having anything but limited class time. The governor then announced in a letter to the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education that her metrics for school reopening would be advisory rather than mandatory.

This change has freed local school districts to work with the local Malheur County Health Department rather than the Oregon Health Authority to determine their plans for a safe reentry. Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, has been a vocal advocate for returning students to school.

As local schools reopen, the Vale School District plans to use cohorting, a practice in which students are sequestered in instructional groups of about 20 or smaller, and block scheduling so that high school students only have two classes a day rather than their usual eight periods. Both practices are intended to minimize the number of contacts a student will have during the school day.

Schools also will continue to check student temperatures before they are allowed on campus, host Covid testing events, and encourage the new Covid vaccine as an option for staff. 

McBride said that Vale’s success with limited in-person instruction set the stage for a similarly successful return to full-time school.

The district took a gradual approach, bringing students back in September for two days a week – the maximum allowed under state rules - then in November went to four days a week. Because of cohorting and block scheduling, all of Vale’s 800-odd students could return to school, even with social distancing guidelines that require 35 square feet per person. 

Due to the school’s “robust protocols and the dedication of staff and students to following them,” during limited in-person instruction, Vale School District saw only “cases, not spread” of Covid, said McBride during her presentation to the board.

Attendance at limited in-person instruction wasn’t required. Now, students will be required to attend daily unless their cohort is quarantining, in which case they would be supported through a temporary return to distance learning. 

Vale administrators have regularly solicited feedback from families and staff about how school is going. The survey showed 93% of families and 94% of staff supported a return to full in-person instruction.

For families who aren’t ready to send their children back to school full-time yet, there is the online Oregon Trail Learning Academy for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Two of the most significant changes from limited in-person instruction will be the return of busing and breakfast and lunch in school.

These operations present logistical challenges for school officials. McBride encouraged families who could to continue transporting their children to school.

According to the district’s reentry plan, students will be required to wash or sanitize their hands before and after mealtimes, as well as maintaining six feet of social distance during meals. 

Vale’s plans to reopen put it in good company with other local districts. Adrian and Harper will reopen on January 11, and Nyssa will reopen on January 25.

“I’m excited for our community, for our staff, for our students,” said McBride after the board meeting. “Distance learning has been very challenging for everyone, but it’s also provided us with the opportunity to have a slow, staggered return to in-person instruction, so I feel that we have the safety measures in place, the protocols in place, that we can return students to the classroom safely.”

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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